Pioneer Peak: bona fide NFA

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been looking for a way to accurately describe just how Alaska it is up here. It’s pretty simple: Alaska is not fucking around. I could use a gentler synonym, but that’s exactly the thing: milder language wouldn’t fully convey the amount of fucking around that isn’t happening.

There’s no one aspect of life in Alaska that’s NFA (that’s right, we’re using it often enough to necessitate an abbreviation). The jagged peaks and rushing rivers, the often-aggressive megafauna, the eccentric and heat-packing locals… It’s all NFA.

Case in point: yesterday, we attempted a particularly NFA-looking summit in the Chugach. I wish we had a photo that really did justice to the degree of NFA-itutde of this peak, but this will have to do:

The objective: Pioneer Peak (6,350′). NFA.

What if I told you we were planning to climb the face you see in the above photo? You’d be pretty impressed, right? Okay, well, don’t be too impressed. Our route sneaks up on the mountain from its southeast ridge, which makes for about a 13-mile day, if you make it to the top. (You can continue not being impressed, because we did not, as you might have realized by now, make it to the top. Just keep reading.)

Here’s a weird thing about Alaska: we did this hike on Sunday of Labor Day weekend, on a beautiful sunny day. In Colorado, this would mean you couldn’t park within a mile of the trailhead, and that you’d be sharing trail with several hundred of your closest friends and their Clif bar wrappers. This is not the case in Alaska: there were exactly two other cars when we pulled up to the trailhead. We ran into maybe six people all day. (Kevin speculates that the rest of the Mat-Su Borough was at Klondike Mike’s for jello wrestling.) In any case, it was glorious.

Left to right: some berries that I’m pretty sure are not edible, fireweed, the Knik River with some friendly-looking (just kidding, NFA) Chugach mountains in the background.

The long, circuitous route to the shoulder of Pioneer Peak begins on the banks of the Knik River, which in case your Alaskan geography is a bit rusty, means we were starting pretty much at sea level–okay, 200 feet. Basically sea level. The first two miles are a long, decidedly uphill slog through sometimes ankle-deep mud, and it’s so densely wooded that it was kind of like walking through a tunnel. For a place that has a reputation for being a barren wasteland, you’d be surprised at the variety of flora here. During this stretch, I prattled endlessly about the various edibles (maybe) that I’ve been taught to identify: “Those are high-bush cranberries, and they have a weird smell. I’m pretty sure you can eat them, but they also look just like a berry you’re not supposed to eat; I forget what the difference is–something about the leaves, maybe?” Kevin is extremely tolerant and, for reasons I cannot explain, managed to feign interest for several minutes before his eyes glazed over and he went to his happy place. Lucky usually peed on whatever plant I was attempting to identify.

Another thing I’ve learned to identify is moose tracks. (It doesn’t take a rocket scientist.) And guess what? I saw a few of those, too. At first I was really excited–look at me, hardly a month up here and I’m practically a naturalist!–and then my superb tracking instincts (read: histrionic fear of being trampled to death) kicked in.

“These are fresh moose tracks,” I informed Kevin, panic rising in my throat.

“Really? How can you tell?” he wanted to know.

“I–I mean, don’t they just look newer than those boot prints?” I said, exasperated at his inability to sense imminent trampling. In fact, I had no idea how to tell if tracks are fresh, though I have since Googled “How to tell if animal tracks are fresh” and discovered that sharp, clean edges and a lack of debris in a given footprint are indictors of recent activity. (In retrospect, these tracks may not have been all that fresh. But they were really big, because Alaskan moose are NFA.)

For the next mile and a half, every rustle in the bushes was cause for alarm on my part. Because he is a good sport, Kevin pretended to be concerned and even insisted on breaking trail until the bushes cleared. (I say breaking trail because “trail” is probably a less accurate term for this section of the route than “muddy, bug-infested bushwack.”) I realized I didn’t actually know what to do, should we actually stumble upon a moose. Make ourselves bigger and louder? No, that’s mountain lions. Assume the fetal position? Bears. Shit, I thought, it’s not like these trees are big enough to climb.

It was in the middle of this inner downward spiral that I identified a pile of actual moose scat, which, in case you’ve never been lucky enough to handle any, looks like gigantic guinea pig droppings. Fortunately for Kevin’s mental health (and Lucky’s wanting to make it back to the car in one piece–moose hate dogs), my discovery came just seconds before we re-entered the sunlight. I could see much more clearly above treeline; it was mostly tall grass and the sorts of hardy-looking bushes you’d picture on an Alaskan hillsideA wandering line of trampled grass led off the trail and down toward the creek. I could just picture a giant bull moose lumbering his way to the high-bush cranberries below, and I was relieved (as, I’m sure, was Kevin) not to make his acquaintance.

The resulting photo. Knik Glacier is on the right. See how blue it is?

Also at this juncture came the first spectacular view of the day: the Knik Glacier. There’s something really cool, no pun intended, about glaciers. Why are they so blue? How big are the crevasses? These are some questions I hope to have answered during our time in Alaska, and also some questions I asked Kevin as I made him slip-n-slide through the mud to get a better picture, because the vantage point is just better when you’re 6’4″. It’s really too bad I put his life in danger so early on, because they view only got better as we went up.

And up we went. From here, trail became clearer and easier to follow, and Lucky enjoyed the break from the dog-grabbing branches that had so frequently caught his doggie backpack in the woods. (Yes, my dog hikes in a doggie backpack, and yes, it matches his collar. It does not appear to slow him down at all, unfortunately.)

I just want to clarify here that when I say the trail went up, I mean it went up. Because they, like their mountains, are NFA, Alaskans do not appear to believe in switchbacks. So. Up we went.

Amazing! These are seriously so red. They are all over the hillside. Also, if you look really closely and listen intently, I’m sure you will sense the presence of pika.

The flora shrank as we climbed higher, and eventually the only thing to see were these beautiful red shrubs. Also, Lucky is reminding me, pika. Lucky is an excellent pika hunter, and though he has never personally caught one, he assures me that if I would just take off his leash (and doggie backpack) for a minute, he would have no trouble digging one out of its little pika den. He is alert (obnoxious) to the possibility of pika at all times when in the high country.

After many false summits (and very few switchbacks), we finally gained the ridge. At this point, the previously blue and mostly clear sky clouded over and started spitting snow in a matter of approximately two minutes. I’m exaggerating, but only a little. We’re used to hasty changes in weather–if you don’t like the weather in Colorado, just wait five minutes, and all that–but this was pretty much instantaneous.

See Pioneer Peak on the right? No, you don’t, because it’s in the middle of a gnarly Alaskan storm, NFA-style.

Intrepid climbers that we were, Kev and I stopped long enough to layer up and put on some rain gear, then continued toward the shoulder, where we still hoped for a chance to make the summit. (When no moose are involved, I am at least moderately brave.) Things got ugly pretty fast from there. Within about fifteen minutes (not exaggerating this time), we could hardly see twenty yards in any direction, let alone the peak itself, though we were just 700 feet below its summit.

The pika have retreated, and Lucky is ready to get home to his rawhide.

While Kevin would probably have forged ahead were it not for me, I was intent on avoiding making the papers: “Doggie backpack all that remains of missing Pioneer hikers.” I pictured our weirdo neighbor, Wilbur*, worriedly calling search and rescue to report us missing when we didn’t make it home in time for his daily inquiry as to what we’re having for dinner. I didn’t think I could put Wilbur through that. The blowing snow had started to feel like someone was flinging tiny needles into my face, and I think even stalwart Lucky was ready to turn around.

*name has been changed due to suspected litigious nature of aforementioned weirdo neighbor.

We’d gone 5.5 miles, according to our trusty GPS, which meant we had about 3.5 miles in the wind and snow needles before we made it back to the heavily wooded hillside, where I would have to resume my worrying about killer moose. The first few miles weren’t so bad, if you don’t mind having your knee joints ground into a fine powder, and, thanks to Kevin’s cheerful whistling, the last two miles in the woods were profoundly uneventful.

Ready for a cold one.

And so it was with sore quads and a very wet, muddy dog that we finished our most NFA Alaskan adventure to date. While we are by no means NFA–I think this standing requires the survival of at least one Alaskan winter–I’m pretty sure we earned the pizza and beer we enjoyed upon our arrival at the homestead. (“I didn’t see a delivery guy,” Wilbur said incredulously, “Must be take-n-bake.”) It was. And after 11 miles and 5700 feet of elevation gain–and loss!–we ate the whole thing.

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